Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC and Sony PlayStation 3
My childhood was filled with lead. Glorious weighty lead, cheap to buy and stoically impressive when placed into a slot base and stored on a bookshelf. I’m talking, of course, about the miniatures of Games Workshop in those halcyon days when Rhino tanks cost £6 and well before white metal turned up to ruin the thrilling risk of hobby poisoning. Spending each of my Saturdays in a small reseller store meant that I was rapidly immersed into the worlds of both Warhammer and 40K, and like many with a similar story I’ve never really been able to lose that interest. As the IP made a transition to electronic entertainment I’ve sat through the good (Dawn of War) the bad (Final Liberation) and the downright ugly (Battle for Atluma) and only once before has anyone tried to cover the source material in a shooter. Kuju’s Fire Warrior was the first Warhammer 40K game published by THQ and it represented a clear attempt to move the franchise out of the (relatively) tiny turn-based strategy market and into the burgeoning mainstream. Fire Warrior failed to ignite market interest however, and until now THQ returned to the strategy genre to represent what is, after all, a turn based tabletop game. But the market to gun people/aliens/zombies/civilians/rambling review writers down ever grows, and any publisher would be remiss to ignore it entirely.
For this assault on the shooter genre THQ have turned to Relic, purveyors of all things Dawn of War. Apart from The Outfit Relic aren’t particular well known for their devotion to any kind of shooting genre, but with good form in treating the franchise IP with the attention it deserves they are arguably a safe pair of hands for the fans. Their output, Space Marine, is a third person shooter with a definite emphasis on arcade style melee. Unlike many other games of its ilk Space Marine eschews a sticky cover system, instead expecting you to either charge into your foes and destroy them close up or to strafe around hard cover in an old-school style. For those used to the modern take on cover it does take a little while to get used to – especially on harder difficulties where your life can be taken in seconds in a crossfire. You have two health bars, one for armour and one for health. When you are not taking any damage your armour can regenerate over time, but the main way to regenerate health is to pull off an execute move on one of your enemies. This can only be done in melee to a stunned foe, therefore forcing you to engage in hand to hand combat if you want to top up your health.
Playing as Captain Titus of the Ultramarines the gameplay initially sees you pitted against an Ork invasion on the Forge World of Graia. The plot later develops to let the Inquisition and the Chaos Marines in on the action as well. The fulfilment of a fanboy’s dream, the ability to just sit back and kick arse as a fully fledged Space Marine cannot be understated. There are questions for those of us who understand the deeper Universe in which the game is set (why is the Inquisitor as tall as the Space Marines? When in the timeline is Titus able to be the 2nd Chapter’s Captain?) but none of them detract from the excitement that the premise promises.
The first impressions of Space Marine are good; you are immediately drawn to the size and the weight of the characters, with each step or roll reminiscent of the realism seen in Boorman’s Excalibur. The whirl of a chainsword as it hacks into an Ork skull, the crunch of your boot as you crush a traitor underfoot – these graphical connections have a form of emotional dignitas, an appreciation that they need to seem plausible for us to be able to engage with the game world. The visceral expulsion of blood upon melee contact, the knockback from a headshot fired from your Bolter all feel fun, and for the first hour or so you will be exultant in your destruction. After that hour? Unfortunately enough for the single player campaign the action very quickly becomes repetitive, the same limited palette of enemies thrown at you and destroyed by the same basic tools again and again.
In many ways Space Marine is more of an action brawler than an action shooter, the expectation of your desire to engage in melee devastation is seen in almost every arena. While there are several different melee weapons to pick up as the game progresses, all with nominally different combo moves, you soon find that the standard key presses don’t ever change, the impact from using them on screen doesn’t change. Certainly ranged combat has its place within the game and the myriad of weapons all work as expected; again though, you will find yourself playing the same few limited scenes again and again – headshotting jinking Ork rocket troops, firing the Melta at charging Nobs, stripping a Chaos Marine of his armour with your plasma weapons. As you combat enemies you fill up a ‘Fury’ meter; once full you can trigger Fury mode which increases the damage you deal and also regenerates your health. The slowdown and additional blood effects during a Fury session are impressive, but as the mode is almost necessary at certain boss encounters you will tend to find yourself storing it away for the regeneration effect rather than unleashing it against the more common enemies.
Indeed, these issues are exasperated by the planning of the levels themselves. Graphically the art direction is stunning – for anyone versed in the back story of Warhammer 40K will marvel at the realisation of the Forge World environments. The gritty gothic scheme is entirely in keeping with the associated literature and the refined use of decorative architecture decals lets the ethos of the Imperium shine through. However, from our experience with the pre-release hands on demonstration and evident to anyone that has been around the back end of games before it is clear that last minute arena and mob tinkering has taken place. Where previously a corridor would be full of charging Gretchin backed up by Shooter Boyz it is now curiously empty, containing only an ammo crate you have no use for having only just filled up. A train yard previously full of explosive squigs mixed with mobs now seems anaemic, only throwing a few token enemies your way. It is as if faced with focus group feedback that the combat was too repetitive that Relic made a late, late call to remove entire groups of mobs, to streamline your travel through levels. Instead of combat there are now empty sections with only the stomping tread of your Power Armour’s boots to keep you entertained. Like duct-taping a tear this fix only serves to draw attention to the underlying issues with the combat mechanics of the game.
Surprisingly enough the multiplayer is entirely different from the single-player experience. Pitting Space Marine’s against Chaos Marines the mode offers you the chance to play as one of three classes: Tactical Marines, Devastator and Assault. Each one of these is a valid option, and depending on the map you are playing on and the tactics being used by the opposing team you will find yourself cycling through all of the options as they become available. The action is fast moving and fun, but with an overall sense of balance. While you initially start off in multiplayer with a very limited set of loadout options you can very quickly unlock various weapons and perks. These perks are both class related and weapon related, with the weapon related perks unlocked by completing weapon challenges (e.g., kill 50 people with this gun) in any multiplayer mode. The gameplay options are currently limited to a deathmatch mode and a checkpoint control mode but the maps themselves are fairly balanced and offer no real advantages to either side (or to any particular playing style, although some maps do encourage your team to ensure they have sufficient people playing certain classes).
While some perks and loadouts work ideally together there are no real cookie-cutter builds that you will need to find in order to be competitive. While OCD gamers will want to unlock the entirety of the perk range others can find weapons they are comfortable with and very quickly progress through the associated challenges thus unlocking new options for themselves. As an added bonus when you die you can copy the loadout of your killer for one life; immensely helpful for new players who may not have a range of options or for simply seeing the effect of a class perk you have yet to unlock this further balances the flow of the multiplayer. In terms of non-combat related customisation Relic have also included a breath taking array of options with which to individualise your Marine; while some fans will be disappointed that you can’t create a true quartered pattern on your loyalist Marine the availability of choice rivals that seen within the Dawn of War games. Also unlockable during play are armour challenges which open up styles of Space Marine armour which you can mix and match – kudos to anyone that uses the Corvus shoulder pad. The customisation tool is unlocked fairly early in your multiplayer career, and expect to lose hours within it if you stick with the game.
Compared to some of the failings of the single player campaign there is a real feeling that Relic have nailed it with the multiplayer, providing an option that is frantic, fair and fun. The constant customisation tinkering you can engage with is wholly addictive and the variation in gameplay between the various classes always leaves you with something else to experience, another weapon challenge to work towards. Indeed, a mechanism such as the perk system would have benefited the single player campaign significantly, or even something as simple as allowing players to replay the campaign with their own paint schemes. The absence of any kind of campaign co-op is infuriating, the arcade feel of combat being supremely suitable to friendly drop in sessions – especially because for the majority of the game Captain Titus is escorted by two other Ultramarines.
The co-op that Relic and THQ have provided through the recently released Exterminatus DLC sadly does not address this, instead providing a twenty-wave Horde style mode. Expectations were high due to the sheer success provided by the ‘Last Stand’ co-op found within Dawn of War, but on first examinations Exterminatus doesn’t reach that dizzy height. Public play is as messy as could expect, and with no way to dictate that you want to join a Live match but from the beginning you can expect to jump into a lot of battles late into the maps when the failure grind begins. With voice comms and friends the mode takes on an entirely different life, becoming a real test of tactical nous and positioning. Towards the end of the waves certain perks, loadouts and class combinations become more useful than others, but there is nothing that a co-ordinated team can’t take down. Compared to other more polished modes out there the Space Marine offering does feel bland, and the issues accessing for casual play don’t help to advertise it’s best features. One also really has to question the delay in Exterminatus’ release as there seems to be no unique features here that would warrant the time taken to release to the market.
In all Space Marine seems a bit of a rough diamond; certainly, expectations were high prior to release and if you dig into the meat of the multiplayer you will find a game worthy of your attention and time. The doling out of weapon perks, the customisation options and the sheer fairness of the apparent balance shows that Relic can hit in the target in this genre. For older Games Workshop fans the game represents a bit of a missed opportunity, the story and the world being lost within the overall repetition of the combat grind. More of a Gav Thorpe's haircut moment than a Citadel Journal shutting down in that respect, Space Marine still offers a fine start in what we can only hope becomes a more polished franchise.